Last Tuesday’s election results confirmed what most observers strongly suspected after the Super Tuesday returns a week earlier: Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominee for president in 2020. Four drop-outs in succession (Pete Buttigieg on March 1, Amy Klobuchar on March 2, Mike Bloomberg on March 4, and Elizabeth Warren on March 5) quickly created a de facto two-man race between the former vice president and his “democratic socialist” challenger Bernie Sanders. Their head-to-head contest wasn’t close. Last week Biden won five of six states, losing only tiny North Dakota, and secured over 50 percent more delegates than did Sanders. The race wasn’t even competitive in Michigan, where Sanders had shocked Hillary Clinton four years ago, nor in Missouri, where Sanders had fought Clinton to a draw. Biden even seems likely to be the winner in Washington, a state Sanders won 73 percent–27 percent in 2016.
While Sanders seemed to capture all the campaign energy, in the end Biden had the numbers. During the South Carolina debate on February 25, the Vermont senator outlined “the way we are going to beat Trump.” It will be done with “the largest voter turnout in the history of the United States. We need to bring working people back into the Democratic Party. We need to get young people voting in a way they have never done before. That is what our campaign is about.” Yet turnout proved no friend to Sanders and his electoral hypothesis. Ironically the populist Sanders prevailed where the people stayed home. On Super Tuesday, Virginia and Texas saw the largest turnout growth of the primary season, with total votes swelling 69 percent and 45 percent respectively over 2016. Sanders lost both states, doing so with his own growth rates below average. The big prize last Tuesday was Michigan, where turnout rose 33 percent over 2016 levels. There Sanders’s absolute vote tally actually declined. Young people disappointed Sanders—as they disappoint every American presidential campaign premised upon their support. From Iowa through Super Tuesday, voters under age 30 as a percentage of total voters fell in eleven of twelve states. It fell again in Michigan and Missouri last Tuesday. When the Democratic masses were finally awakened, they didn’t rally to the Sanders flag—they backed Biden.
This outcome is quite unlike the revolt within the Republican party in 2016 that many observers expected the Democrats to repeat in 2020. For three weeks in February it actually looked as if a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” really could become a major party candidate for president of the United States. After the Nevada caucus, Nate Silver’s popular prediction model had Sanders at nearly a 50 percent probability of winning the nomination. South Carolina proved it was all a mirage. Why? Sanders’s well-known and longstanding lukewarm support among African-American voters proved an insurmountable hurdle in a state where 56 percent of the Democratic primary electorate was black. Yet it wasn’t Biden’s victory but its margin that proved shocking. Polls showing a 5-10 point Biden victory a week before the election suddenly suggested a 15-20 point drubbing just before election day. After the actual votes were counted, Biden thumped Sanders in South Carolina by 28 points and neither Buttigieg, Warren, nor Klobuchar could even reach double digits. Biden’s victory gave Democratic voters the sign that the candidate best positioned to carry on the Obama legacy could actually win—the sign they had long been seeking.
The early Sanders surge obscured the fact that, unlike GOP voters four years ago, Democrats today are quite positive about both their party and their presidential candidates. Most important, Democrats have shown little interest in rebelling against their most recent president. In July 2016, Gallup found that 75 percent of Republicans had a favorable view of former President George W. Bush. A January 2018 CNN poll found fully 97 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of former President Barack Obama.
The Obama legacy ultimately proved Sanders’s undoing and Biden’s salvation. Democratic voters want a restoration, not a revolution. The working hypothesis of a “moderate” lane represented by Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg and a “progressive” lane contested by Sanders and Warren was always overwrought. Personalities are more important than policies among the electorate. Yet the lane hypothesis had value to the extent that it reflected two rival positions on the Obama era. This was symbolized in the debate over Medicare For All. “Moderates” defended the Affordable Care Act and promised to repair and extend it, in the process defending and promising to extend Obama’s namesake and legacy. “Progressives,” on the other hand, implicitly tagged Obamacare as a sellout to insurers and drug companies and in need of wholesale scrapping. A similar battle crystallized over immigration policy last summer and fall. Minor candidates Julián Castro, Bill de Blasio, and Cory Booker attacked Obama by name while Biden alone mounted a (qualified) defense of the former president. Yet in the end it turned out “very simple” in the view of former Obama adviser and CNN analyst Van Jones: “Joe Biden stood with the first black president, and black voters stood with Joe Biden.” The man who from the beginning campaigned on the promise of an “Obama-Biden administration” third term prevailed.
Contrary to Bernie Sanders’s demand for structural revolution, most Democrats clearly believe there is nothing so wrong with America that a proper scrubbing of the personnel in the White House cannot solve. The sudden and terrifying challenge posed by COVID-19 will put that thesis to the test. Apart from jabs at Donald Trump and his misleading public statements on the pandemic, in last night’s CNN debate neither Biden nor Sanders comported themselves particularly well on the matter. Biden conjured up phantasms of international cooperation and “situation room” technocracy. Not even the coronavirus could knock Sanders off his stump speech raising up Medicare for All and laying low the banks and pharmaceutical companies. Neither candidate even pretended to answer the direct question of an Italian-style national quarantine in the United States.
Biden was certainly correct in saying that at this moment of national emergency, Medicare for All is wholly beside the point. At the same time, the consequences of the pandemic will go far beyond the imaginations of experts holed up in a situation room. If three weeks of shutdowns and social distancing turn into three months, support for radical structural change may make a political comeback in forms difficult to predict―and right on the heels of a presidential election.
Darel E. Paul is professor of political science at Williams College and author of From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage.